June 17, 2019

The Australian Interior Design Awards give us an annual snapshot of the state of workplace and retail design. Here’s what this year’s program showed us.

The annual Australian Interior Design Awards (AIDA) provide a moment to recognise this country’s best interior designers and architects and, for the broader industry, a valuable opportunity to identify emerging design movements and gauge contemporary positions on colour and texture. Laminex once again sponsored AIDA’s Workplace Design and Retail Design categories, and we spoke to jury member and Hassell senior associate Anthony Dickens about what there is to learn from this year’s entries.

StylecraftHOME Melbourne by Hassell | Photographer: Nicole England
Dialling down the colour, making the work the hero

The macro trend in Australian interior design might be for bolder use of colour, but a casual glance at the commended projects in the Workplace Design category is enough to notice something quite different. “We saw a lot more neutral colours than in previous years, with timbers, whites and a fair few greys coming through,” says Dickens. “That simplicity of colour and materiality was matched by a simplicity of forms as well, and a return to really simple approaches to how to design everything from a table to an entire workspace.”

BVN Studio
BVN Sydney Studio | Photographer: Brett Boardman

Pressed on what might have caused this shift, Dickens suggests that it reflects changing ideas about how workplaces should function and, more specifically, a moderation of the activity-based working, or ABW, business strategy. “With ABW, the focus was on choice and diversity. There was a lot of experimentation with patterns, colours and curved forms, and now we’re seeing a reaction to that,” says Dickens. “In these new projects, it’s not about how colourful the sofas are, for example, or the diversity of furniture. It’s about the workflows and the processes and giving people tools that support their work.”

The category award winner, BVN’s fit-out for their own Sydney studio, epitomises the trend, with flexible open workspaces that promote transparency and collaboration, and a materials palette of concrete, plywood, grey surfaces and white walls. Many of those white walls are surfaces for writing on, so teams can work through ideas together, and invite input – in essence, making the work the hero. This idea is explored in several of the shortlisted projects, and it’s clearly an approach better supported by neutrals and natural textures than by a strongly coloured interior design treatment.

But Dickens also draws a link between the predominance of neutrals and the way the designers worked within each project’s physical location. Cox Architecture’s Brisbane studio fit-out, for example, preserves and celebrates original timber, cast iron and brick elements from its nineteenth-century industrial structure, with natural materials and neutral colours cast in a supporting role. “Across the broad, the work seems to have a real sense of place and context,” he says. “Everything was very sympathetic to the environment that it was in”. 

Richer colours and textures creating immersive retail moments

There was a similar respect for context shown among the projects in the Retail Design category. But one of the fundamental differences between designing for retail and the workplace is the immediate impact a retail fit-out needs to have on the people who come into that space – it needs to work harder, quicker. Perhaps this is why the shortlisted retail projects reflected more of the trend towards strong colour in interiors, with the designers seeking to create richer, more immersive environments. “We definitely saw a stronger play on colour in the retail category,” says Dickens, “as well as texture and metallics.”

SJB’s design for the UNSW Bookshop, which received a commendation in the category, enlivens natural timber flooring and joinery with various shades of pink and blue, expressed through tiling, painted surfaces and furniture. 

Another commended project, StylecraftHOME Melbourne by Hassell, combines rich green and blue accents with copper-clad archways and a golden stairway, to create an effect perhaps best described as “industrial luxe”. It’s the kind of interior you step into and stop for a moment, to take it all in! 

Usfin by George Livissianis
Usfin by George Livissianis | Photographer: Tom Ferguson

If Usfin bucks the retail colour trend, its design rationale is consistent with the best of the projects entered in this category. As Dickens notes, “The retail sector is competitive and these projects prove that creating an aligned memorable experience is paramount to ensuring a brand has a clear voice.” It’s just that for most retail designers this year, creating that experience meant being quite colourful; for one, a commitment to being colourless!

Usfin by George Livissianis
Usfin by George Livissianis | Photographer: Tom Ferguson

To view images of all shortlisted projects in AIDA’s Workplace Design category, click here. For Retail Design, click here.